‘Tupelo Man’ an honest biography of George McLean

By Danny McKenzie / FOR THE DAILY JOURNAL

It would have been easy for Robert Blade to compose a very biased biography of his father-in-law – be it pro or con – but he didn’t.
What Blade did for us all when he wrote “Tupelo Man: The Life and Times of George McLean, a Most Peculiar Newspaper Publisher” was state the truth. The unvarnished truth.
From the opening-sentence description in the preface, it becomes clear that Blade, a former newspaperman and now a journalism professor, would present the life story of McLean in a wholly unbiased manner:
“George McLean, the idiosyncratic, impertinent, and impatient publisher of the Daily Journal in Tupelo, Mississippi, from 1934 until his death in 1983, operated far outside mainstream newspapering.”
That is as accurate and succinct a description of the George McLean many of us knew and worked with as one could ever hope to type – and right away leads the reader into the fascinating story of Northeast Mississippi’s most fascinating citizen.
Tupelo Man is the finely honed story of McLean, the city, the region and, above all, the newspaper – the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal – to which he was totally devoted. It is far more than the biography of our region’s most prominent citizen; it is the biography of our region itself.
Blade, married to Anna McLean for more than 40 years, offers an astonishingly honest portrayal of the life and times of his father-in-law, and in doing so, tells the story so many of us heard time and again – of how McLean “bought a bankrupt paper from a bankrupt bank” and used it to transform a town and a region.
Tupelo Man is the story of the Community Development Foundation, Lift Inc., the CREATE Foundation and so many other products of McLean’s vision. It is the story of race relations in Northeast Mississippi and, for that matter, it is the story of human relations.
It is the story of a community development model that has been emulated by innumerable cities and regions throughout America to varying degrees of success.
Never, though, does Blade sugar coat the story. A learned and devout Christian, McLean’s temper was legendary and equaled only by his level of impatience.
McLean the newspaper publisher was far more successful than McLean, the father of two adopted children. In describing McLean’s paternal skills, Blade pulls no punches nor takes any cheap shots. He just writes the facts as he knows them – and as admitted to by McLean himself – and leaves it at that.
“Tupelo Man” takes the reader from McLean’s privileged childhood in Winona, through his often tumultuous young adulthood, through his introductory to the “social Gospel,” through his early, struggling days in Tupelo and, finally, through his days of prominence.
It is also the story of Keirsey McLean, his remarkable wife who held his family together and kept his ego in check as well as anyone.
“Tupelo Man” is educational and Blade’s style of writing makes it enjoyable.
Having worked five years with Mr. McLean (I still can’t refer to him any other way), I am convinced of this: He would have liked this book.
Danny McKenzie is a former member of the Daily Journal family who now works at Blue Mountain College.